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Game over: Craig Kimbrel locking it down at the back end of Cubs bullpen

11 months agoTony Andracki

NEW YORK — Patrick Wisdom will never forget his first interaction with Craig Kimbrel.

Wisdom is in the midst of a historic hot stretch right now for the Cubs and he gave partial credit to the team’s closer for helping to make him feel comfortable in the clubhouse immediately last season.

The Cubs called Wisdom up for the last few days of the 2020 regular season and position players like Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward made him feel welcome but Kimbrel did his part, too.

“Probably a future Hall of Famer. I saw him around, I was letting him do his thing — pitchers got their routines,” Wisdom recalled. “And then he saw me and he stopped me and he was like, ‘hey man, I’m sorry I was so rude. I’m Craig, nice to meet you.’ I’m like, ‘hey, no worries, man. You do you.’ That was pretty cool.”

This season, Kimbrel has made all of Cubdom feel comfortable whenever he takes the ball.

He’s 18-for-20 in saves this season and his 0.66 ERA ranks 3rd in the National League. Hitters are slashing just .109/.186/.163 (.349 OPS) off him.

Just for good measure, the 33-year-old has struck out nearly half the batters he’s faced this season (45 of 102 — 44%).

“It’s so nice to have somebody of his caliber on the back side of the bullpen when you know you can mix and match to get to that 9th,” David Ross said. “When he’s like this — I’ve seen him like this early on in his career — you just feel like it’s game over.”

Ross caught Kimbrel’s MLB debut in 2010 so the Cubs manager has plenty of firsthand experience watching the closer operate at his best.

It wasn’t so long ago that Cubs fans had major concerns about Kimbrel. He came into the 2021 season with a 6.00 ERA in his first 41 appearances in a Cubs uniform and struggled to start spring training but the veteran insisted he would figure it out and get everything locked in before the start of the regular season.

He’s done exactly that.

Kimbrel is as locked in as he’s been at any point in his career, turning back the clock to the days when he led the league in saves from 2011-14 with a 1.51 ERA.

With Kimbrel near-automatic, it affords Ross the luxury of working backwards. He compared Kimbrel to a “security blanket” and knows he can work backwards from the 9th inning as he weighs when to take a starting pitcher out of the game.

The Cubs bullpen has emerged as one of the best units in the league and it all starts with Kimbrel. As he regained his dominant form, it’s had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the group.

“The key to a good bullpen is having a lockdown closer,” said Ryan Tepera, who has 13 holds. “It just sets everybody else up. Setup innings — that’s obviously my job — coming in in the 7th and 8th inning and shutting them down and letting Craig do his job.”

Tepera has watched Kimbrel run the gamut of success over the last two seasons and has been impressed by the closer’s demeanor and attitude.

“He’s the same guy every day, man,” Tepera said. “He works hard, he’s in the weight room, he’s doing everything he needs to do to get ready for the next game. His mentality — that’s why he is who he is.

“He struggled a little bit last year and it was probably the first time in his career and it just shows you this game can be hard sometimes. For him to fight through that, it was fun to watch.

“It’s been cool to sit back and be the stepping ladder to his success. I come in and then he comes in. It’s cool to see.”

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